Staying fit during Ramadan can be quite challenging and even more so now as we battle this global pandemic together. However, with the right combination of diet and exercise, anything is possible. Today, we look to Maha El Gazzar, a certified nutrition coach and personal trainer to uncover her secret formula for healthy living.
Tell us a little bit about you
I’m a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach in Dubai. Four years ago, I decided to quit my career in corporate communication and focus entirely on my passion – namely building an online and personal coaching business – which had been till then only a part-time occupation.
After completing my physical education, I quickly realized that nutrition has to go hand-in-hand with coaching. I didn’t just want to be able to create meal plans for my clients, but also to understand how nutrition can complement and improve their training. Consequently, I completed a certification in sports nutrition and physical transformation.
Has fitness played an important role in your childhood? How did you begin?
I have dabbled into different sports during my teenage years, most notably volleyball and basketball. However, my real training began at the age of twenty-one, when I entered the gym for the first time. Training has been my religion since.
What is your definition of a healthy diet?
A healthy diet is one that is balanced and focuses on nutrient-dense, wholesome food. More importantly, it is a diet that includes all macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein and fats – that the human body needs in large quantity, as well as a variety of micronutrients – namely vitamins and minerals.
However, I would add that clean eating should make up 80% of your diet, while the remaining 20% should be reserved for mindful indulgence. The key is to practice a moderate approaching to food; this is how healthy eating becomes a lifestyle and not just a phase.
Our Vegan chocolates contain No Added Sugar, Preservatives or Palm Oil. What are three foods you always keep in your refrigerator?
The staples in my refrigerator include cashew milk (my favourite nut milk), eggs, chopped greens that I add to my post-workout shake (usually spinach or kale), cheese (cream or goat cheese) and bananas.
What’s your go-to diet during Ramadan (foods, nutrients to focus on) and the optimum workout time for those who are fasting?
My diet in Ramadan is not different than my everyday diet. The perfect meal template for Iftar (or lunch/dinner) should include a palm-size serving (up to two for men) of protein (chicken breast, beans, lean beef, white fish), one cup (up to two for men) of carbohydrates (grains, legumes, potatoes, quinoa) and fibrous greens (broccoli, spinach, beans, asparagus) one thumb (up to two for men) of fats (oils, butter, nut butter’s, nuts/seeds).
Following these portions not only offers a wholesome meal but also allows people to exercise portion control when breaking the fast so to avoid indigestion or an upset stomach.
The one food that should take centre stage in Ramadan is fibre; fibre-rich food is great to have at Suhoor to provide a sense of fullness. More importantly, due to the new feeding schedule of Ramadan, many suffer from irregular bowel movements, especially in the first week, as the body is still adapting to the changes. Therefore, fibre should be included in every meal to ensure proper digestion and promote regularity.
As for training in Ramadan, I am a huge advocate for training after Iftar, as the body is under a lot of stress during the day from food and water restriction. Training just adds further strain to the body, leading to an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone), which in the long run can have adverse effects on health. I always recommend two different time slots to train, which one to choose depends largely on each individual and their energy level – which could shift from one day to another. First one could be right after Iftar, after consuming a fast-digesting pre-workout snack (like banana, dates, sweet potato), accompanied by 500 ml of water. The second one is later in the evening, pre-Suhoor when the body has fueled and hydrated properly.
Exercises to stay fit during Ramadan
A good training program would incorporate strength and cardiovascular training (cardio) – a training that raises the heart – with at least one day of recovery. Both can be done together or split up into different days. However, because cardio training can be quite taxing in Ramadan, low-intensity options – like 30 minutes of walking – can serve as a great alternative.
The number of days someone trains in a week will determine what exercises to focus on. For someone who only trains three days a week, it’s best to include compound movement (train multiple muscle groups) like squats, dead lifts, push-ups, to get the most out the workout.
Your advice to those who struggle with fitness or keeping to a routine…
I think the most important thing to focus on when struggling with motivation is the “why” – what are you training for? What is your goal? Everyone is different, and everyone needs to find the reason that pushes him or her to do the work day after day. For me, it’s cathartic and key for my mental health, so when I don’t train, I simply don’t feel good.
Having said that, it is important to note that even the best athletes in the world struggle with motivation sometimes, and it’s alright to give yourself a break when you need to. The most important thing is to get back on track after and not let it dictate your mood for weeks on end.
A mantra/philosophy/quote that keeps you motivated and inspired
“The body achieves what the mind believes.”